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COP21 produced a climate change agreement – get ready for an intense political battle with fossil fuel interests

After over 20 years of negotiations, the COP (Conference of Parties) UN Climate Change negotiation process has finally produced an “accord”.  French President François Hollande spun it as “The decisive deal for the planet is here.”  But environmentalists lamented the climate change deal reached in Paris did not do enough.  In a video recorded a day or two before the agreement was reached, author/activist Naomi Klien (and collaborator on Pope Francis’ Climate Change project) said the agreement probably doomed us to 3 degrees of temperature increase, that the key problem is the “more more” mentality of Capitalism, and that the economic system needs to change in fundamental ways that should no longer be called Capitalism.

The COP21 climate change agreement document spells out the terms in only 31 pages, albeit with dense language that’s full of references to prior agreements and other documents.  For those reading along at home, the meat of the agreement begins at page 21 with the Annexes.  Everything prior to that is definitions laying the ground-work of the agreement.

Acknowledging that climate change is a common concern of humankind, Parties should, when taking action to address climate change, respect, promote and consider their respective obligations on human rights, the right to health, the rights of indigenous peoples, local communities, migrants, children, persons with disabilities and people in vulnerable situations and the right to development, as well as gender equality, empowerment of women and intergenerational equity,

The effects of climate change, and other environmental problems, impact different regions to varying degrees.  Several parts of the agreement require input from indigenous groups and other disadvantaged peoples on human rights grounds.

An example of the varying impact is the various places that are already being submerged by rising oceans.  Primarily the affected people are poor cultures living in low-lying areas.  I first heard of islands disappearing under rising ocean levels in the Sunderbans – an island chain in the Delta on the Bay of Bengal formed by the super confluence of the Ganges, Padma, Brahmaputra and Meghna rivers across southern Bangladesh.  Over 10 years ago, scientists had discovered some of the islands had already disappeared, because of rising sea level, displacing the inhabitants.

Now that COP21 has produced an agreement, it’s up to individual countries to ratify their support of the agreement.  The document will be available at the UN Headquarters in New York for government leaders to sign it, between April 22, 2016 to April 22, 2017.   Prior to a government leader signing the agreement, the legislature of the corresponding country has to itself adopt the agreement.

In other words, in the U.S.A. the U.S. Congress will have to agree to adopt this agreement.  This will have to occur during 2016, which is an election year, and therefore the agreement will become an intense focus of political debate over the next few months.   President Obama cannot wave a magic wand, Congress has to buy in, and Congress is dominated by Republicans who not only are sworn to destroy any proposal put forth by Obama, but to fight tooth and nail to preserve fossil fuel consumption.

That’s why I am predicting the next few months will see an intense climate change political fight.

UPDATE: According to the NRDC’s Switchboard blog, the U.S.A. is already a Party to the climate change process, and has already been reporting national progress.  Article 4 of the current agreement, which requires approval from each participating government, simply “reiterates the obligations already contained in Article 4 of the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change”.   The U.S. Congress approved the 1992 agreement in 1992.   According to legal experts (See here and here) the US already has the necessary approval, and does not need to go to Congress to approve what has already been approved by Congress.

Before the conference, the U.S. announced its “Intended Nationally Determined Contribution” (INDC), again one of the requirements listed in the COP21 agreement, which is to achieve a 26 to 28 percent reduction in our greenhouse gas emissions by 2025, from 2005 levels.  That submission was posted in March 2015 on the State Department website.

Further, all the legal basis necessary to participate in the agreement are already enacted in law.   “The Clean Air Act, for example, gives the Environmental Protection Agency the authority and responsibility to set standards to curb carbon pollution from cars and trucks, power plants, and many other sources,” notes the NRDC.

Perhaps I was premature in assuming above that this would require new political work in Congress.  However, it’s also clear that the Republicans don’t let truth get in the way of achieving their ends.  They will surely spin this around like a topsy-turvey, make the Obama Administration look like they’re acting unilaterally, perhaps illegally agreeing to something from the UN that will impose an internationally inspired subversion of U.S. interests.

My prediction stands, we will see an enormous political fight in the coming months.


UPDATE: Because the agreement doesn’t have mandatory requirements, maybe it doesn’t have enough teeth to make it a success?

Naomi Klein claims the agreement will doom us to 3 degrees C of warming — and that the current commitments are not enough to get to 2 degrees of warming.

An expert briefing was held in Paris just before the COP21 agreement was approved, that gives an expert-level explanation of details in the agreement.

Antonia Juhasz claims that during the conference Saudi Arabia worked hard to block and delay the agreement, which would be suicidal because the impact of climate change is to render the Persian Gulf simply uninhabitable.



This agreement won’t save the planet, not even close,” Bill McKibben, co-founder of 350.org, a climate advocacy group, told The Huffington Post in an email. “But it’s possible that it saves the chance of saving the planet — if movements push even harder from here on out.”

Mohamed Adow, Senior Climate Advisor, Christian Aid: “For the first time in history, the whole world has made a public commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and deal with the impacts of climate change. Although different countries will move at different speeds, the transition to a low carbon world is now inevitable. Governments, investors and businesses must ride this wave or be swept away by it. Negotiations were long and hard fought but the result is an agreement which will usher in a new dawn of climate-aware politics. The era of politicians burying their heads in the sand is over.”

Kumi Naidoo, Executive Director, Greenpeace International: The wheel of climate action turns slowly, but in Paris it has turned. This deal puts the fossil fuel industry on the wrong side of history.”

Emma Ruby-Sachs, Acting Executive Director, Avaaz: “If agreed, this deal will represent a turning point in history, paving the way for the shift to 100% clean energy that the world wants and the planet needs. By marching in the streets, calling leaders and signing petitions, people everywhere created this moment, and now people everywhere will deliver on it to secure the future of humanity.”

David Turnbull, Campaigns Director, Oil Change International: “The Paris climate talks present a lowest common denominator of global politics, not the aspirations of the global community. It’s the people on the streets who provide the real hope for addressing the climate crisis. People fighting for climate justice around the world are the ones who will solve this problem and they’re already making headway day by day. This year, with wins over the Keystone XL pipeline and Arctic drilling, the climate movement has begun to show its  true strength. It is by continuing these fights day in and day out, year in and year out, through the voice of a growing global movement that cannot and will not be silenced, that change will happen.”


Rainforest Action Network sent me this statement:

Rainforest Action Network views today’s global climate agreement in Paris with both hope and disappointment.

We are encouraged at the recognition that deforestation and forest degradation play a critical role in the climate crisis, yet greatly disheartened at the lack of binding inclusion for Indigenous and human rights in the agreement. We are hopeful that promises of addressing the loss and damage experienced by developing nations will become a reality, but this will require the full participation of wealthier nations many of whom have an even worse environmental track record.

Ultimately, real change is always led by people power. The past few weeks in Paris have presented a heartening display of the unity and solidarity of an ascendant global climate justice movement with Indigenous community voices and voices from the global south at its core. Frontline communities, Indigenous communities, and everyday activists who are willing to stand up to those who place profits before people and planet will force the change we need to see.  And that will allow us to keep forests standing, to keep fossil fuels in the ground, to protect human rights and to create a just and sustainable future.

Annotated summary of selected Articles in the agreement

Article 2 contains the key goal of the agreement:

  1. This Agreement, in enhancing the implementation of the Convention, including its objective, aims to strengthen the global response to the threat of climate change, in the context of sustainable development and efforts to eradicate poverty, including by:
    1. Holding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2 °C above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels, recognizing that this would significantly reduce the risks and impacts of climate change;
    2. Increasing the ability to adapt to the adverse impacts of climate change and foster climate resilience and low greenhouse gas emissions development, in a manner that does not threaten food production;
    3. Making finance flows consistent with a pathway towards low greenhouse gas emissions and climate resilient development.
  2. This Agreement will be implemented to reflect equity and the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities, in the light of different national circumstances.

“Well below 2 degrees C” is a great goal.  No matter how many laws get passed declaring such-and-so, there is of course the matter of how does the goal get implemented.  Decades ago various legislatures passed laws declaring the value of the mathematical constant Pi to be “4” because that would make mathematics easier, but of course the reality of geometry is that Pi is one of the non-deterministic numbers whose value cannot be precisely calculated.  It doesn’t matter that those legislatures passed that law, because Reality dictates the actual value of the constant Pi.  So, too, will Reality dictate the actual result of climate change based on what we humans do or fail to do to avert the catastrophe.

Article 4 calls for a drastic reduction in greenhouse gas emissions

Parties [to the agreement] aim to reach global peaking of greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible, recognizing that peaking will take longer for developing country Parties, and to undertake rapid reductions thereafter in accordance with best available science, so as to achieve a balance between anthropogenic emissions by sources and removals by sinks of greenhouse gases in the second half of this century, on the basis of equity, and in the context of sustainable development and efforts to eradicate poverty.

Each participating country will declare their “nationally declared contribution”.

Developed countries are expected to “take the lead” while Developing countries “should continue enhancing their mitigation efforts, and are encouraged to move over time towards economy-wide emission reduction or limitation targets in the light of different national circumstances.”

This point is related to a video I found from India’s NDTV network discussing the COP21 meeting.  The thrust of that TV program is that India (and other developing countries) are weary of being blamed for high greenhouse gas emissions.  While India has a lot of coal fired power plants, and therefore high total CO2 emissions, on a per-capita basis their CO2 emissions are much lower than the developed countries.  The commenters on that TV program called for “transfer of technology” to poor countries so that those countries could develop a clean energy infrastructure.  As we’ll see in a later Article, that’s indeed what was adopted in the agreement.

Article 5 calls for preservation of forests and other natural “sinks” of greenhouse gasses:

  1. Parties [to the agreement] should take action to conserve and enhance, as appropriate, sinks and reservoirs of greenhouse gases as referred to in Article 4, paragraph 1(d), of the Convention, including forests.
  2. Parties [to the agreement] are encouraged to take action to implement and support, including through results-based payments, the existing framework as set out in related guidance and decisions already agreed under the Convention for: policy approaches and positive incentives for activities relating to reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation, and the role of conservation, sustainable management of forests and enhancement of forest carbon stocks in developing countries; and alternative policy approaches, such as joint mitigation and adaptation approaches for the integral and sustainable management of forests, while reaffirming the importance of incentivizing, as appropriate, non-carbon benefits associated with such approaches.

Article 6 seems to be discussing trading of carbon credits, so that one country can pay another country for greenhouse gas mitigation that benefits both.

  1. Parties [to the agreement] recognize that some Parties choose to pursue voluntary cooperation in the implementation of their nationally determined contributions to allow for higher ambition in their mitigation and adaptation actions and to promote sustainable development and environmental integrity.
  2. Parties [to the agreement] shall, where engaging on a voluntary basis in cooperative approaches that involve the use of internationally transferred mitigation outcomes towards nationally determined contributions …
  3. The use of internationally transferred mitigation outcomes to achieve nationally determined contributions under this Agreement shall be voluntary and authorized by participating Parties [to the agreement].
  4. A mechanism to contribute to the mitigation of greenhouse gas emissions and support sustainable development is hereby established … It shall be supervised by a body designated by the Conference of the Parties …
    1. To promote the mitigation of greenhouse gas emissions while fostering sustainable development
    2. To contribute to the reduction of emission levels in the host Party, which will benefit from mitigation activities resulting in emission reductions that can also be used by another Party to fulfil its nationally determined contribution

Article 7 is about adapting to climate change, strengthening resilience and reducing vulnerability to climate change.  All this circles around the need for communities of all sizes to make changes that prepare us all to navigate the coming climate catastrophe.

  1. Parties [to the agreement] recognize that adaptation is a global challenge faced by all with local, subnational, national, regional and international dimensions, and that it is a key component of and makes a contribution to the long-term global response to climate change to protect people, livelihoods and ecosystems, taking into account the urgent and immediate needs of those developing country Parties that are particularly vulnerable to the adverse effects of climate change.

What do these terms mean?  I have an interpretation of this from my role in helping to launch the Transition Town’s movement in Silicon Valley.  Transition is a global organization focusing on strengthening resilience of local communities so we can prepare not only for climate change risks, but peak oil risks.

  • Adaptation: Is what we do, recognizing the risk of climate change, and working not to fix the underlying problem, but to adapt to the reality of the changing climate.  An example of adaptation is changing social ethics such as when New York City a couple years ago announced it would no longer enforce laws against public nudity so that during the summer people could go around wearing less clothing simply because it was too dang hot to be fully dressed.
  • Resilience: Is the ability to quickly bounce back from a crisis.  An example related to climate change is to start growing your own food in your own yard.  While you won’t be able to feed yourself completely from the land space of a typical suburban home, any food you grow yourself adds to your personal security.  Part of the expected climate change catastrophe is disruptions to the food supply.
  • Vulnerability: This is the varying level of risk from the changing climate.  An example is the larger vulnerability poor people living in coastal communities have, because rising sea levels will inundate their homes.

I don’t know if those definitions are the intended meanings within this document.  It is interesting that in this article the word “adaptation” is what’s most frequently used.

Mitigation is another word that could be (and is) used in the agreement – and refers to the efforts that address underlying causes of climate change.  An example is the switch from fossil fuel technologies to ones driven by electricity, such as switching from gasser cars to electric.

The agreement calls for increased sharing of information, scientific knowledge, etc in this area.   Each country is to cooperate internationally on adaptation, taking into account the special needs of developing countries that are particularly vulnerable.

Article 8 discusses minimizing and addressing the loss and damage associated with extreme weather events.

  1. Accordingly, areas of cooperation and facilitation to enhance understanding, action and support may include: (a) Early warning systems; (b) Emergency preparedness; (c) Slow onset events; (d) Events that may involve irreversible and permanent loss and damage; (e) Comprehensive risk assessment and management; (f) Risk insurance facilities, climate risk pooling and other insurance solutions; (g) Non-economic losses; (h) Resilience of communities, livelihoods and ecosystems

This, I would say, is an example of Adaptation.  We’ve already seen an increase in extreme weather events.  Those events have caused extreme flooding in some places, extreme drought in others, extreme firestores in others, more intense hurricanes, more intense snowstores, etc etc etc.

It’s not possible to directly act on the weather, and so therefore all we can do about the weather is suffer through it and ensure our buildings and infrastructure is built strongly enough to withstand even the strongest storms.

Something not mentioned in this article, which should be there, is an effort to rebuild critical infrastructure so it’s not on the coastline, and therefore not at risk to rising sea level and stronger storm surges.  An example from my region (San Francisco Bay Area) is all the bridges and airports built at the waters edge.  How long will those structures last given sea level rise?  Shouldn’t our local government be doing something to relocate those critical infrastructure elements?

Article 9 calls for developed countries to assist developing countries.

Article 10 is where the agreement calls for technology transfers to help developing countries.

  1. Parties, noting the importance of technology for the implementation of mitigation and adaptation actions under this Agreement and recognizing existing technology deployment and dissemination efforts, shall strengthen cooperative action on technology development and transfer.

They recognize that accelerating adoption of clean energy technologies is key to “an effective, long-term global response to climate change and promoting economic growth and sustainable development.”  The support to developing countries needs to be both technology, and the financial assistance to implement the technology.

Article 11 discusses capacity-building efforts, especially in the more vulnerable areas.  While what it says in this section is interesting, and positive, the phrase “capacity building” isn’t defined clearly.  There is another section early in the document discussing capacity building, and everything is nice and rosy and talking about the need to increase capacity building efforts without telling the reader what that means.

Article 12 calls for increased climate change education, training, public awareness, public participation and public access to information.

Article 13 calls for transparency “to build mutual trust and confidence and to promote effective implementation.”

Article 14 says that the COP process will take in data about progress in all countries, and produce reports.

Article 15 establishes a committee to “facilitate implementation of and promote compliance” with the agreement.


About David Herron

David Herron is a writer and software engineer living in Silicon Valley. He primarily writes about electric vehicles, clean energy systems, climate change, peak oil and related issues. When not writing he indulges in software projects and is sometimes employed as a software engineer. David has written for sites like PlugInCars and TorqueNews, and worked for companies like Sun Microsystems and Yahoo.
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About David Herron

David Herron is a writer and software engineer living in Silicon Valley. He primarily writes about electric vehicles, clean energy systems, climate change, peak oil and related issues. When not writing he indulges in software projects and is sometimes employed as a software engineer. David has written for sites like PlugInCars and TorqueNews, and worked for companies like Sun Microsystems and Yahoo.

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